Our Trek to Birdsville in 1987

Our Trek to Birdsville in 1987

In 1987, American expats Richard and Vivien van Dijk wanted to have truly Australian experiences during their time based in Wangaratta for Richard's job. What could be more Aussie than a road trip up the Strez? Thanks to Richard van Dijk for sharing a fantastic story of another adventure on The Outback Loop.

I am not much of a storyteller but in 1987 two of us, with our wives, did for the most part what is now the called the Outback Loop.

I spent two years in Australia in the 1980s. I was an assignee down there working for a company to assist in transferring technology from the USA.

We were travelling with Bob and Evelyn Wylie. Bob was a colleague of mine, and he spoke with the strongest Scottish accent. We had trouble communicating for a while until we got on the same wavelength.

We decided to do the trip because we had met some Aussie folks who were avid outback 4-wheel drivers. They said to us, “If you really want to say you’ve been to Australia and done an Aussie thing, you have to go up to Birdsville.

“You have to drive up the Strez, and down the Birdsville Track, and have a beer at the Birdsville Pub.”

We hit the road from Wangaratta to Birdsville

We didn’t have much of a plan, except to say we drove the Strzelecki and Birdsville Tracks.

We started out in Wangaratta, Victoria. Making our way to White Cliffs, Milparinka, Cameron Corner and up the Strzelecki Track.

We went to the dog fence then westward, taking on the gentle rolling dunes - it was almost like a roller coaster to go over the dunes.

All we had was an air mattress and some cooking provisions. We would find a place away from the road, camp under the stars then pack it all up and head on to the road again.

We’ve always been campers and outgoing folks and we did a lot of tent camping in the US, but the outback is about as far away from anything that you can get.

TOL Submission 2021 Richard Vandijk Birdsville Trip 0049

If we came across more than a couple of cars a day it was a lot and then you would stop and visit with complete strangers.

If you saw someone, you would just pull up in the middle of the road. There was no reason to pull up, but you’d lean out of the window and say, "hi, where are you going, where’d you come from?", and share road conditions.

And if it was close to teatime, better fire up the billy and have a cup of tea.

There are so few people but there is a real camaraderie amongst travellers you meet in the middle of nowhere.

We met mostly Australians and folk travelling like we were. They were down to earth, friendly folk and welcomed you with open arms.

Visiting Innamincka, the Cooper Creek and the Dig Tree

We ended up in Innamincka for fuel and supplies, and headed off to the Dig Tree area on the Cooper Creek

The Cooper Creek is an oasis in the middle of nothing. I don’t know how else to explain it to be honest with you.

From what I recall, it was pretty much a desolate area, then suddenly you come across a nice flowing stream in the middle of a vast desert. Out of nowhere you’ve got the banks of the creek, the trees... The birds were astonishing.

We camped there for several days and enjoyed the visit to the Dig tree and the story of Burke and Wills.

We headed back to Innamincka and on to Birdsville via Cordillo Downs, continuing north ‘til we hit the east west road to Birdsville. Think it was called the Queensland Developmental Road at the time.

A Rite of Passage: Breaking Down on the Road to Birdsville

My friend’s car, an old Holden, had the fan blades go through the radiator after going too fast through a ditch. The engine had moved forward on worn out mounts.

Lucky for us, with crimping off of the bad cores, epoxying them and adding stop leak, we were back in business.

The old Holden not only survived the trip with half a radiator but for another year before getting scrapped.

We made the pilgrimage to the famed Birdsville pub and made a donation to the RFD service in order to take a picture inside the pub. Well worth it for the memories.

We didn’t know the rules in the Birdsville pub. I pulled out the camera and half the people in the pub started saying ‘pay up, pay up, pay up’.

One thing about Australians is that if it’s your shout, they’ll let you know. I have very fond memories of that.

Down the Birdsville Track to Marree

After a couple of days around the area we set off down the Birdsville Track to spend the night at the Marree Hotel.

(Editor's note: we've all come a long way since the '80s! These days, The Marree Hotel is a very comfortable and welcoming place to stay, with lovely pub meals and the service to match.)

The room had very high ceilings, was sparsely furnished with a single light bulb hanging from the middle of the ceiling. The bulb did not give enough light to even read and the electricity went off before bedtime.

In the morning the manager was nowhere to be found and several guests started wandering through the kitchen looking to cook some breakfast and turn the power back on. Luckily the manager and his helpers showed up and we finally had some breakfast.

We hit the road again for the last leg onto the Flinders Ranges and back to Wangarratta via Mildura.

We had spent two weeks for the whole trip, driving about 3800Kms.

The Marree Hotel in 1987.

Unforgettable Outback Moments

The places that really made an impression were Cameron Corner, the Cooper Creek and Birdsville.

Several things stood out that the wife and I still reminisce over; the beautiful red sunsets, the flies, the isolation.

On a moonless night, it is so dark. Even though there is so much desolation out there, the nice thing about it as well, is that at night time on a moonless night - the skies are unbelievable. As hostile as the outback can be, the night skies are so beautiful.

Unless you’ve been in that environment, you couldn’t imagine it. We lived in Wangaratta - 20 clicks out of town and the town was only 20,000 people. Even there, you couldn’t see skies like you can in the outback.

The best part was the journey and what we found along the way, with the ultimate goal to have a beer in the Birdsville pub.

Share Your Outback Story

Thanks to Richard van Dijk for sharing his fantastic story with The Outback Loop.

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